Animal-loving TV presenter and former newsreader Jan Leeming, is helping to highlight the plight of Romanian street dogs after meeting Ursu, a seven-year old Romanian stray dog so traumatised by human brutality he had to be netted or sedated before being approached.
Ms Leeming, who has most recently appeared in BBC1’s ‘The Real Marigold Hotel’, took time out to meet Ursu on a recent trip from Kent to West Yorkshire where he is now happily rehabilitated.
Ursu – meaning bear in Romania – was aged seven and still surviving in a Romanian kill shelter when Sarah Napier spotted him on a UK animal website at the end of 2014. Sadly, her enquiry coincided with the charity that was sponsoring his keep having just taken the decision that he was too mentally damaged to ever be homed.
How Sarah and her husband persuaded Monica’s Romanian Rescue to let them have Ursu and try and rehabilitate him is at the heart of a book which has been written by Sarah to help fellow strays and is receiving excellent reviews.
Ursu – Never Give up on a Dog, tracks the first two years with the Napiers and has also been publicly praised by actor and animal activist Peter Egan, and actor Thelma Barlow.
Ursu had survived as a stray for about two years on the streets of Bucharest before being caught by the dog catchers and flung into one of Romania’s most notorious kill shelters. Miraculously he survived on scraps of food for about three years despite being surrounded by death and disease and was somehow spared the barbaric regular killing of the dogs. No-one knows for sure how he survived but the book explores how this might be explained and how he came to be transferred to a better shelter, but still a kill shelter, where he continued to shun human contact despite the best efforts of some local volunteers.
Jan Leeming, owner of her own adult rescue, René, a Pappilon from Battersea Dogs Home, and whose professional career as a supporter of animal welfare has included the reality TV show, Safari School, says: “Ursu was a delight to meet. Happy, friendly, balanced and very accepting of René entering his personal space. The patience that Sarah and her husband have shown is remarkable. What is even more astounding is how they managed to reach through to Ursu and turn him around from a feral frightened seven-year old stray into the placid and relaxed dog that he is today. It’s a fantastic read that I couldn’t put down. ”
The kill shelters of Romania are so called because of their brutal practices including culling dogs in inhumane ways including clubbing, poisoning, starving, freezing them to death and burning them alive. The strays are caught using metal lassos that tighten round the neck and some have their legs trussed at painful angles. Ursu witnessed all of this and experienced much of it and chose to shut down from humans. He would growl if anyone made a move towards him and his eventual fate was unclear while ever he was incarcerated.
“We were his only enquiry in all his life”, explains Sarah, “and the more I learned of his story the more I felt such a stoic dog should be given his chance. But I’m not a dog psychologist and had to rely on an innate understanding backed up by much research to try and work with him. There was no way my husband and I could take him to dog training. He arrived biting, bucking and terrified and hadn’t walked as such for up to four years. He wouldn’t take a collar or a lead. We were told he was the most mentally damaged dog the charity had ever seen. He was terrified of just about everything. We were beginning way back from the usual start line.”
It took a lot of persuading for the reputable charity to let Sarah take on the dog and it was only after a home visit and on the understanding that Ursu would be taken away if his aggression couldn’t be controlled, that Sarah was given the chance to try. Ursu travelled from Romania to join Sarah and her husband Robert in January 2015.
“The morning after we got him, continues Sarah “which had been a very traumatic day for all three of us, Ursu took the decision to come up to me and sit down in front of me and put his head on my lap. After years of shunning all human contact his behaviour was extraordinary. He was still terrified and feral and inclined to try and bite and it was a long haul to get him to where he is now, but his canine intelligence told him he was somewhere very different and that he should take a chance on us. He is now the most affectionate of dogs and exuberantly happy.”
A well-known animal activist working to improve the lot of stray dogs is Downton Abbey actor Peter Egan, who himself travelled to Romania with a team in the summer of 2018 to witness and film the needless terrible plight endured by the thousands of homeless dogs that roam the country. The result, a 30 minute documentary entitled ‘A Dog’s Life – the Homeless Dogs of Romania’ (see Notes to Media) was presented at a live screening in Brussels last month (January) to coincide with Romania taking over the Presidency of the EU and calls on the country to abide by the existing EU legislation that would better protect these animals.
Describing the book as a “brilliant read”, Peter goes on to say : “Having recently filmed in Romania I know what it takes for a dog to survive on the streets or in the Kill shelters. Ursu survived. He inspires us all to never give up.”
Thelma Barlow, best known for her roles in Corrie and Dinnerladies and who bought the book on the recommendation of a friend, describes it as a book about taking risks, beating the odds, and about compassion and kindness. “You don’t have to be an animal lover to enjoy it”, she says.
Jan observes: “It just goes to show that there isn’t such a thing as a bad dog and that a dog’s intelligence should never be underestimated. It’s all about the training and the environment in which they are living. Ursu is living proof. ”
“It was a complete surprise and pleasure to have Jan join us” says Sarah. Such a household name. Ursu took to Jan instantly and it was such a fillip to have someone in the public eye recognise both Ursu and his book. The way in which these sentient beings are treated is deplorable and the more the word spreads the greater the pressure on all countries to treat these defenceless animals with decency.”
‘Ursu – Never Give up on a Dog’ tracks the dog’s first two years with the Napiers and has been written to raise awareness of the plight of stray dogs and to help raise funds and inspire adoptions. The book is accompanied throughout with photography documenting Ursu’s progress.
Ursu – Never Give up on a Dog is priced £7.99 and is available from Amazon and Waterstones.
Ursu has a Twitter page @UrsuOn.